Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, June 2007. Talking to Your Crew and Cast by Arthur Vincie. Pages 32 – 35.
To produce or direct takes a lot of different skills: technological, logistical and creative. To become a master in any one of these domains can take you your entire career. But there’s one skillset that will help you in your career (and life) right away: people skills.
Sounds obvious, right? And yet, while there are a ton of technical and critical books on the film/video shelf at the
bookstore, there are very few books about how to “play nice with others.” This is very perplexing when you realize what a collaborative process filmmaking is.
Many of us got into the film and video field because we wanted to create something. We were seduced by the PR photo of the director looking through the lens of the camera. What many of us didn’t realize (until we started actually working in the field) was that just out of the frame of that PR photo stood an army of men and women who are a necessary part of the process.
I came from a writing and still photography background — both solitary professions by nature. I hated team sports in high school, and generally disliked groups of any kind. The biggest challenge for me when I started directing and producing was learning how to communicate what I wanted and cope with other people’s opinions and emotions. So what I’m about to tell you has come from hardwon experience, not a simple self-help book.
People skills are important at every level, but especially so if you want to be a leader (a producer, director or department head). I’ve tried to condense a lot of knowledge into a few brief, practical pointers that you can remember on set.
Being A Leader:
Many of us had bad leadership models growing up. The screaming baby-sitter. The principal who was both scary and
laughable at the same time. The coach who verbally beat you up in front of the team. Your jerk boss who seems to love screwing with your head.
None of these people are good leaders. They may get people to tow the line, and do the minimum to stay out of trouble, but most of them are simply using force to get what they want. They can get away with it because they have some kind of binding power over you.
You’re not in that position. If you’re about to make your lowbudget feature film and you’re relying on people who aren’t getting paid a whole lot, chances are they’ll leave or at least mentally “check-out” after the first verbal abuse you hurl at them.
The following notes will point you towards a better model of leadership: leading through preparedness, directness, and swift decision-making.
1. Don’t Yell, Even If It’s Justified
As soon as you yell at someone, they will immediately try to escape blame. They’ll blame you for what went wrong. Often there’s a kernel of truth in what they’re saying. So in your efforts to correct someone, you may actually erode your own standing. It’s natural to get mad when your film, which you’ve slaved on for god-knows-how-long, is being put in jeopardy because of someone else’s silliness. Maybe the second AC just exposed a roll of film (very serious). Maybe the location manager neglected to tell anyone that you’re filming under a flight path. There’s always someone to blame in these situations, but the first rule of thumb is: don’t argue. Don’t raise your voice.
Think: did I do something to contribute to this?
Often, the answer is yes. Maybe you hired the wrong person for the job and didn’t realize it. Maybe you didn’t communicate clearly about what you wanted. Or maybe you’re just tired and are getting upset over nothing.
The better path: Talk in a calm voice. You want to sound commanding but not arrogant, direct but not screaming. If
someone has done something wrong, point out the mistake, not the actions that led to it. Avoid seeking blame. If someone genuinely screwed up or is acting out, take them aside and talk to them privately.
If the other person is screaming at you, it’s even more important to appear calm and in control. That way everyone can see what a jerk s/he is and how cool under pressure you are.
2. Show Up On Time
How you behave sets the tone for the rest of the crew. If you’re late, they’ll take that as permission to be late themselves. So don’t be late. Be the first one on set and the last to leave, if possible.
3. Show Up Prepared
A lot of directors show up on set without a shot list, blocking diagram, storyboard, rehearsal notes, or any kind of prep work. They somehow think that the shoot will just “come together.” Nothing is more frustrating to the crew and cast than watching the director try to pull a scene out of his or her ass, but it happens more often than you might think. It’s also expensive — everyone is on the meter.
Start with a plan. Your storyboards can be stick figures. You can draw a blocking diagram (basically a floor-plan with camera and actor movement indicated in arrows) even if you’re not sure you’re going to use that location. Your conversation with your DP can be over coffee the week before the shoot. You can rehearse and reverse-engineer your shot list from what you liked during the rehearsal.
The point is that you don’t have to put together a perfect, polished, Spielberg-quality storyboard/shotlist/diagram/etc. You just have to spend some mental energy and time thinking through what
you want, and writing or drawing it out. Even if your actors, locations, and script elements change between your planning and production, you’ll be better off.
The psychological effect on the cast and crew will be measurable. They’ll know that you were prepared. They’ll be more apt to trust you when you make changes to your plan. And your plans can help with your communication (see next).
4. Communicate in Multiple Mediums
Some people respond well to verbal instruction. Others need to have everything written down for them. Still others work in pictures.
Figuring out what each person in your crew or cast responds to is part of your job. If you want your “vision” on the screen, you’re going to have to figure out how to get it there through the talents of the people you’ve hired.
For “Caleb’s Door,” a low-budget feature I directed, I wrote up a four-page “vision” statement and handed it out to the crew. I also showed them clips, stills, paintings, and even suggested CDs for them to listen to. The lead character was an ex-Marine. I found a book written by a Marine in the Gulf War, and gave it to the actor. I told him to watch certain films. I sketched (badly) certain props for the production designer, and made copies of my pitiful, stickfigure
I didn’t know ahead of time who would respond to what, so my solution was to blanket everyone with enough different types of instruction (verbal, written and visual) so that they would get the idea of what I was trying to achieve.
5. Communicate to Your Crew in Terms of Results
This could also be called “don’t micromanage.” A DP likes it when you say “hey, can you make it darker over on the right of frame, I really want to set a certain kind of mood.” A DP hates it when you say “hey, can you move your tweenie over past his shoulder and throw a double on it.” You get the idea. Let the craftsmen practice their craft.
Tell them what you want, not how to achieve it.
It’s hard to know when you’re stepping over the line. Even if you know what you’re talking about technically, you may still be bruising the ego of your crewperson by micromanaging his/her gear or personnel. At other times (particularly when you’re budgeting your shoot), you as the producer have to tell the crew what they have to work with equipment-wise (or at least, how much they can spend on equipment for their respective departments).
However, (I’ll get to this next), it’s important to know “what you’re talking about” and that you settle nitty-gritty conversations “before the shoot”.
6. Communicate to Your Actors in Terms of Process
Actors are very different than crew. They need to be told something that’s “playable.” Saying “be more angry” is not
playable. Think about it. Is there an “anger meter?” How do you get “more angry” anyway?
Figuring out how to talk to actors takes a lot of study and, most of all, practice. Below are some very quick tips that can get you out of a jam.
Talk in Terms of Facts, Not Judgments. Don’t tell the actor that the character they’re playing is “horrible” or “skanky” or “lying.”
You can tell the actor what actions they’ve performed (either in the script or as part of their backstory) and let them draw their own conclusions as to the nature of the character.
Don’t Over-talk. The first inclination is to explain everything about the character to the actor. Don’t do it. Tell them exactly what they need to know. The more inner material that the actor generates, the more involved s/he is with the character.
Don’t Line Read. Nothing will destroy an actor’s confidence worse than having you say their lines. You want an actor, not a robot.
The Script is Not Set in Stone. If an actor is finding difficulty with the blocking or a specific line, it’s either because
(a) the actor is just not getting something, or
(b) the script isn’t working.
Before correcting the actor, see if his/her “mistake” is an improvement over what’s written. Often, blocking that looks great on the page doesn’t work once you get on set.
No Sarcasm. Don’t be sarcastic with your actors unless it’s already part of your relationship. Actors get more out of supportive comments and jokes than negativity, even if it’s joking.
7. Know What You’re Talking About
In general, the more you know about the crafts of filmmaking, the better off you are. If you can talk shop with people, you can speak to them in more detail (keeping in mind my point above) and get closer to what you want. If you’re budgeting your film, knowing how much things cost and what they’re for will increase your negotiating position a lot.
The flip side of this is that if you don’t know something, don’t pretend you do. Nothing will erode the crew’s confidence in you more than when they find you out — and they will.
8. Respect the Hierarchy
Most film crews, even small ones, are organized hierarchically. This is simply because a hierarchy is a very efficient short-term social structure. Everyone (theoretically) understands their place in the food chain and who they’re getting their orders from.
You can really screw this up if, for example, you start talking to the camera operator about your shots instead of the DP, or if you talk to the PA about what their lock-up is. Always talk to the head of the department first. Don’t borrow, correct, or direct people who aren’t department heads.
Obviously, as you and your crew get to know each other better, you can bend the rules a bit, but it’s never bad to keep the department heads aware of what you want.
9. Show Enthusiasm
Your attitude affects everyone else’s. People look to you to know how to act. So show up with a smile. Say hi in the morning to everyone. Tell someone when s/he does a good job. Make jokes. I sometimes sing goofy songs on set, just to get everyone in a good mood. I make jokes when there’s time to do so, and generally try to maintain a friendly attitude. But keep in mind…
10. Not Everyone Will Have the Same Level of Enthusiasm as You
It’s your project. The crew and cast are hopefully getting something out of the film, but in an important way, they are not necessarily “owners” of the film in the same sense as you are. So to expect everyone to be as happy as you about making your film is a bad thing. One day the art director will show up on set mad because he got into a fight with his spouse.
On another day, the lead actor will get pissy in the middle of the day because she’s hungry. Maybe the sound mixer wants your job, or thinks she can do it better than you. Maybe the gaffer is mad because he passed on a juicy commercial to work on your film.
You can’t control any of this. It’s not personal. A film set is a pressure cooker environment, and strong emotions (not all of them good) are bound to surface.
Do not try to make everyone happy. You’ll fail and end up frustrating people. Focus on the work at hand. Make sure that there are no real complaints (say, about safety, harassment, food, or truly hellish shooting conditions) and make sure the real complaints get fixed. Stay enthused. Sometimes that by itself will bring people around.
11. Spot the Troublemaker, and Eliminate Him or Her Right Away
Some crew members are very focused on their departments, even to the detriment of others. Some people are just shy and don’t want to bond socially to the rest of the group. Others are extroverted and may steal some attention periodically with a witty joke, or even making fun of you in a harmless way.
All of this is fine, and sometimes desirable. But there is one type of person who needs to be spotted and eliminated right away: the troublemaker.
It’s important to distinguish between a troublemaker and someone who disagrees with your decision. You want
disagreement when it’s warranted. Face it, your decisions are not going to be perfect every time. Your DP may not be able to re-plan that dolly track in a timely way, or your production designer may have to remind you that it’s physically impossible to tear down that wall. Your first AD may tell you that it’s time to move on. None of the above are reasons to fire someone.
This person is dangerous and his/her attitude can infect the rest of the crew. You can’t afford a mutiny. So you’ll have to identify this person and either not hire him or fire him as soon as possible.
What you’re looking for is someone who:
(1) Thinks they’re doing you a favor by working on your film;
(2) Is late consistently;
(3) Is repeatedly not doing what you want;
(4) Doesn’t listen to you or argues with you over every decision you make;
(5) Doesn’t respect the hierarchy;
(6) Has a consistently bad attitude.
On every shoot I’ve been on where we’ve had to let go of someone, the shoot functioned better than if we’d kept them on.
On one film I line produced, it was clear from early on that one of the department heads was a problem. The decision to keep him aboard cost us money (in overtime, having to deal with his meltdown during one of our most critical days) and unnecessary aggravation.
12. Don’t Postpone Making Decisions
This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often directors and producers become paralyzed with fear when faced with decisions.
The fear is that you’ll choose the wrong thing — the wrong actor, wrong location, wrong take, wrong shot, etc. Sometimes this fear is justified, but it can easily creep into making more minute decisions, so that you’ll end up staring into space instead of telling the armorer which of the two guns the character should be carrying.
Sometimes you’ll need a minute or a crewperson is pressuring you unnecessarily. It’s fair to ask for a minute. But remember, everyone’s on the meter. The longer you take to decide something, the harder it is to make your day, stay on budget, get the sun while it’s still up, etc. So make decisions on set as quickly as possible.
As long as you’re paying attention, and you listen to your partner (producer or director), crew, and cast, you’ll usually be able to spot a bad decision before it’s too late. Even in cases where you’re stuck with a bad decision, it’s rare that they’re fatal to a project (sometimes, however, they can get expensive to fix). And sometimes what feels like it’s a bad decision is simply something you hadn’t considered before but works perfectly — the happy accident.
The main thing about people skills is that they stem from observing human nature. As a person working in film or video, you’re already trained to do this, whether you realize it or not.
What may seem like a daunting set of “pointers” will become second nature to you in very short order. And you’ll find that as you change the way you interact with other people, others will respond in kind.
Good luck, and happy shooting!
Arthur Vincie has over 10 years of film and television production experience, and works as a line producer, producer, and director. He recently wrote, and directed “Caleb’s Door,” a DV feature currently wrapping up post-production. Since 1996, he’s been a partner in ArtMar Productions, a film production, consulting, and education company. “Windows,” a feature Arthur line produced, premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “Rock the Paint,”
which Arthur line produced and post supervised, premiered at Tribeca in 2005.